The Sabbatical Year
(Shanat Shmitta)


Modern Followers of the Way observed Sabbatical Years from Spring to Spring of 1995-1996, 2002-2003, 2009-2010, and 2016-2017. The next Sabbatical year will be Spring 2023 to Spring 2024 (see the end of this article for the reason behind the discrepancy between the Rabbinic Shmitta and the Talmidi Shmitta).

These years were calculated taking note of when Sabbatical Years occurred in ancient times (Rabbinic Sabbatical Years begin in the preceding Autumn). Projecting forward, this meant that our first Sabbatical Year as a modern community would take place beginning March 1995. Until someone can verify beyond any doubt that Sabbatical Years were something else, then for the foreseeable future, we shall be observing Sabbatical Years for 1 biblical year from the Spring of the following years:

2023, 2030, 2037, 2044, etc

What the Sabbatical Year is for

The Sabbatical year mostly benefits the poor. You forgive all debt, and the poor can pick and eat anything that grows naturally of itself in the Land of Israel. You cannot sell such food to them, you must give it freely, or let them take it freely.

During a Sabbatical Year, outside of the Land of Israel, Israelites and God-fearers are not to buy or sell food grown in Israel, and they are to forgive any debt owed to them by other Israelites and Godfearers.

The laws of the Sabbatical Period only apply to food grown in Eretz Yisrael (within the biblical boundaries of the Land of Israel). It does not apply to food grown outside of Israel.

In Israel, although you may not plough or sow (Ex 23:11, Lev 25:4b), or reap/harvest (Lev 25:5) during the Sabbatical Year, you may eat whatever the land yields of itself during the 12 months. Whatever the land produces may be eaten (Lev 25:6-7, Ex 23:11). This means that annual plants that have grown by natural seed-fall can be eaten. However, they cannot be harvested in the normal manner – poor people each pluck and take what they need. 

Although the Torah nowhere commands the following, by tradition it was forbidden to buy and sell food that grew during the Sabbatical Period; it was meant to be freely available, especially to the poor (Ex 23:11).

People living in Israel may pick and eat food themselves, but cannot buy Israeli-grown food that has ben harvested. They can however buy food grown outside of Eretz Yisrael. People living outside of Israel similarly cannot buy Israeli-grown food. However, if they are given food freely that was picked in Israel without paying for it (an unlikely situation), then you can eat it.

Debt release: The Sabbatical Period is also for the cancellation of debt. If any fellow Israelite owes you money, according to Deut 15:1-3 you must cancel all debts owed to you by them. However, if a non-Jew owes you money, you may continue to ask for full repayment of the debt.

In ancient times, during a Sabbatical year, anyone who was bonded to serve out their debt was to be freed. And they were to be provided with the means to get themselves back on their feet (Deut 15:12-14).

The Importance of helping the poor in the Yahwist Mindset

In the Hebrew mind-set, to ignore the poor and disadvantaged is to revile God. An ancient Hebrew proverb says, ‘He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Creator.’ (Prov 14:31, 17:5). Yahveh is the champion of the poor, the despondent, the weak, the powerless, and those without a voice. Therefore, if you abuse those whom Yahveh champions, you revile God (cf. also Isa 3:15). As Jacob the Pious wrote, ‘Are [the rich] not the ones who blaspheme the good Name which has been called down upon you?’ (James 2:7)

The Book of Psalms (72:12) says, ‘God will deliver the needy who cry out, the oppressed who have no-one to help.’ ‘Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise (i.e. and take action), says Yahveh.’ (Ps 12:6, 12:5 in Xtian bibles))

God stakes God’s reputation on God’s compassion and concern for the poor and the least of society. So in Yeshua`’s day, when the laws designed to help the most disadvantaged in society – such as the laws on debt relief and the Sabbatical Year laws – were being ignored, God wasn’t going to stay idly by and do nothing.

The Sabbatical Year ignored by the rich in ancient times

From the above it can be seen that the original intent was to mitigate the worst effects of debt. Unfortunately, these laws were not always followed. In Yeshua`’s time, the laws of the Sabbatical year were more or less totally ignored by the rich.

Torah shows how the finances of an earthly kingdom should be run according to the laws of the Covenant. In the time of the prophet Yeshua`, they were generally abused or totally ignored by the rich – and the Oral Law often provided ways for the rich to wangle themselves out of their responsibilities. As a prophet, Yeshua` would have spoken against this abuse. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to see that this is what Yeshua` was actually doing in his teaching. Non-Jews rarely understood the motivation behind the laws on debt release, or the strong passions aroused in pious Jews for them; this is why, in my opinion, they are not articulated very well by the gospel writers in the reported sayings of Yeshua`.

If we want to hazard a guess at the missing or unreported words of Yeshua`, then we have only to look at those laws of the Covenant that were being unjustly ignored, and we can be sure that Yeshua`, as a prophet of God, would have spoken about them.

Previous prophets who inveighed against rulers and landowners who ignored the debt and land laws, were warned that the land they had accumulated would be taken from them when Israel’s enemies invaded. I believe that this had to have been one of the warnings Yeshua` spoke about, but one which was ignored by the gospel writers who wanted to present the Romans in a good light. Nevertheless, I believe that Yeshua` warned the rich that their drive to accumulate land from the poor, and their failure to heed the commandments that protected the poor, would be judged when the Romans took that very land from them and exiled them, denying them the wealth that they had gotten unjustly.

The Sabbatical Year is Nisan to Nisan, not Tishrei to Tishrei

If the Sabbatical period starts in Tishrei (the Seventh Month), then Lev 25:20-22 doesn’t make sense:

You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for THREE years. While you plant during the EIGHTH year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the NINTH year comes in.

Some background: In Israel, the main ploughing and sowing is in Kislev (the Ninth Month, Nov-Dec), and the three harvests are Nisan (1st Month), Sivan (3rd Month) and Tishrei (7th Month) (April, June and Oct).

If the Sabbatical Year started in Tishrei, then you would not need the sixth year’s crop to last three years, only two (year six and seven). You can sow in the eighth year and harvest in the eighth, not the ninth:

year 6: Kislev-sow, Nisan-harvest, Sivan-harvest, Tishrei-harvest
year 7: Kislev-don’t sow, Nisan-don’t harvest, Sivan-don’t harvest,

Tishrei-don’t harvest
year 8: Kislev-sow, Nisan-harvest, Sivan-harvest, Tishrei-harvest
year 9: Kislev-sow, Nisan-harvest, Sivan-harvest, Tishrei-harvest

However, if the sabbatical year starts in Nisan, then you would have no harvest in year 8, because you have not sown in year seven, and therefore you WOULD have to wait until the harvest of the ninth year comes in (hence Lev 25:22):

year 6: Nisan-harvest, Sivan-harvest, Tishrei-harvest, Kislev-sow,
year 7: Nisan-don’t harvest, Sivan-don’t harvest, Tishrei-don’t harvest,

Kislev-don’t sow
year 8: Nisan-no harvest, Sivan-no harvest, Tishrei-no harvest, Kislev-sow
year 9: Kislev-sow, Nisan-harvest, Sivan-harvest, Tishrei-harvest

The passages in Torah referring to the Sabbatical Year

Ex 23:10-11
For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

Lev 25:2-5
YHVH said to Moses on Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to YHVH. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath to YHVH. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.

Lev 25:6-7
Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you – for yourself, your manservant and maidservant, and the hired worker and resident alien who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

Lev 25:20-22
You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.

Deut 15:1-15
At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because YHVH’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land YHVH your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey YHVH your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For YHVH your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you. If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that YHVH your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to YHVH against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this YHVH your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as YHVH your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and YHVH your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

Deut 31:10-11
Then Moses commanded them: “At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before YHVH your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing.

The Reason for the discrepancy between the Rabbinic Shmitta and the Talmidi Shmitta

The next Rabbinical Shmitta will be Sept 2021-Sept 2022. One would think that because we follow the biblical year calendar (starting in Nisan around March), our Shmitta would therefore be Mar 2022 – Mar 2023, but it isn’t; it’s Mar 2023 to Mar 2024.

The reason for this is that our Sabbatical Years follow in an unbroken continuum from ancient times. It is the Rabbinic Shmitta year that was changed; I am unsure at which point it was changed. Sabbatical years in ancient times were calculated from the date of the Israelites’ entry into the Land of Israel (1406 BCE). Maybe the rabbis decided on a date back in the 18th century as a new date to start calculating from as a ‘Re-entry into the Land – it all depends on how you interpret Lev 25:2-4).
There are certain years which we know historically were rabbinic Sabbatical Years (Sept to Sept):  
Sept 331 BCE to Sept 330 BCE – Remission of taxes under Alexander the Great for the Rabbinic Sabbatical year (Biblical Sabbatical Year: Mar 330 BCE to Mar 329 BCE)
Sept 41CE to 42 CE: rabbinic Shmitta begins: Agrippa reads from the Torah at Sukkot (rabbinic year ends Sept 42CE) (Biblical Sabbatical Year: Mar 42 CE to Mar 43 CE)
Sept 48CE to Sept 49CE: (Biblical Sabbatical Year: Mar 49 CE to Mar 50 CE)
Sept 132 to Sept 133: Rental contracts of Simon bar Kosiba indicating Sept 132/ Sept 133 as a Sabbatical year (Biblical Sabbatical Year: Mar 133 CE to Mar 134 CE)
If you therefore carry forward the biblical Sabbatical Years, so adjusting for the start and end of the biblical year, they end up with the next Shmitta being Mar 2023 – Mar 2024. However, as I pointed out above, the Rabbinic Shmitta is Sept 2021 – Sept 2022. Again, I’m not sure if the Rabbinic years were recalculated to start again at a new date of re-entry into the Land; ours goes back to the original entry into the Land in 1440 BCE – it all depends on how you interpret Lev 25:2-4 – whether they interpret “When you enter the Land” as meaning “every time you enter the Land after an exile” (?). We interpret it as being just the once – the original entry into the Land in 1440 BCE.